The Alvaret Ensemble + Kira Kira, E. O. Ólafsson, I. G. Erlendsson, B. Magnason: Skeylja
Denovali Records

The key word on this second full-length outing by The Alvaret Ensemble isn't the group name itself, even if it's the natural drawing card as far as fans of the outfit's eponymous debut release might be concerned—and certainly it's the group name that provides the clarifying cue as to what one might expect the new recording will sound like. No, the key word is the title Skeylja, given that the word alludes to the idea of an international project oriented around the notion of improvisational music created by musicians from different countries and backgrounds.

In this case, Greg Haines, Jan and Romke Kleefstra, and Sytze Pruiksma ventured to Iceland to explore musical possibilities with Ingi Garðar Erlendsson, Kira Kira, Borgar Magnason, and Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson in the form of nine concerts at the Oerol festival on the island of Terschelling in The Netherlands (Skeylja is, in fact, an invented word that blends the Frisian word for Terschelling, Skylge, with the Icelandic word for island, Eyjan). With ten hours of recordings of all nine shows in their possession, those involved proceeded to Haines' Electricity Works studio in Berlin to edit the material into its forty-one-minute physical form. Though a mere list of credits can't convey the music's character, it does provide a starting point for imagining it: in that regard, the sounds contributed by ensemble members Haines (piano), Jan Kleefstra (voice, texts), Romke Kleefstra (guitar), and Pruiksma (percussion) merge with those by Erlendsson (tuba, trombone, thranophone), Kira Kira (voice, electronics), Magnason (contrabass), and Ólafsson (trumpet, electronics).

The music itself exudes a sombre and at times noir-like tone much more than it does uplift. The opener “Hoarn” is characteristic of the whole in opting for a ponderous delivery—at least, that is, until the music erupts halfway through in a series of wailing horn flourishes and aggressive percussion gestures. In that moment, we seem to witness, literally, The Alvaret Ensemble joined by its Icelandic guests. Anyone heretofore familiar with recordings on which Jan Kleefstra has appeared will know how distinctive his voice is, and the same applies to Skeylja; every time his slow drawl surfaces, the music assumes an inescapably cryptic character. But his voice is hardly the dominant element; if anything, the sound distribution is treated democratically with equal attention given to all of the participants' contributions. Haines and Magnason, for example, make their presence felt during “Aaster,” their interplay also providing a stable ground for the horn expressions of Erlendsson and Ólafsson and the hushed vocal musings of Kira Kira. “Kleifarvatn” similarly derives its force from the two vocalists as well as a dramatic mass generated by piano, trumpet, and percussion.

One should be forewarned that Skeylja is sometimes nightmarish, nowhere more harrowingly than during “Sjouw” where curdling screams are rivaled in intensity by the instrumental presentation. While not as intense, “Hafravatn” likewise spotlights the collective's heavier attack in the explosive percussive strikes that accompany Ólafsson's bluster. But the release includes moments of stirring beauty, too, as exemplified by the closing “Borgarvatn.” The artist credit for the release might be clumsily long, but the music is anything but. Skeylja clearly benefits from the fact that the music's creators had ten hours of live recordings with which to work, and the eight tracks included on the release never feel aimless or lacking in stimulation.

April 2014